So expanded and financed, the Allies now had some 492,000 men in arms, with 1,383 cannon; Napoleon, having received a contingent from Denmark, and the new conscripts he had waited for, had 440,000 troops and 1,200 pieces of artillery. The Allies formed three armies: an “Army of the North,” under Bernadotte, centered in Berlin; an “Army of Silesia,” under the impetuous and undiscourageable Blücher, formed around Breslau; and the largest of the three, the “Army of Bohemia,” under Prince von Schwarzenberg, focused in Prague. Together they formed a half circle covering Napoleon at Dresden; separately each of the three was free to fight its own way to Paris. Against these Napoleon opposed an “Army of the Left,” under Oudinot, to hold Bernadotte; an “Army of the Center,” under Ney, to watch Blücher; and an “Army of the Right,” under himself, to guard the roads by which Schwarzenberg might let loose an avalanche of men from Bohemia. There were discouraging but apparently unavoidable defects in the French position: Napoleon could not use his fine Italian scheme of concentrating his whole force on one of his enemies at one time, since this would leave the road to Paris open to the others; two of his armies had to manage without the spur of his presence and the quick versatility of his tactical skill.
On August 12 Blücher opened the fall campaign of 1813 by moving westward from Breslau to attack Ney’s divisions at the Katzbach in Saxony. Ney’s men were caught napping, perhaps literally, and fled in panic. Napoleon rushed up from Görlitz with his Imperial Guard and Murat’s cavalry, re-formed Ney’s troops, and led them to a victory that cost Blücher 6,000 men.12 But at the same time Schwarzenberg led his 200,000 men north in a dash to seize the French headquarters at Dresden. Napoleon turned back from the pursuit of Blücher, led 100,000 men 120 miles in four days, and found the Austrians holding almost all the heights around the Saxon capital. On August 26 the French army, led by the Old Guard and the Young Guard, crying “Vive l’Empereur!” broke through the enemy lines, and fought so ferociously—Murat leading his cavalry with his old-time recklessness—that, after two days of combat, Schwarzenberg ordered a retreat, leaving 6,000 of his men dead, disabled, or captured. Napoleon himself had directed some batteries in the thickest of the fire.13
Alexander, from an exposed hill, had watched the conflict with his new favorite, Moreau, beside him. A cannonball shattered both of Moreau’s legs. A few days later he died, in the arms of the Czar, but crying out, “I, Moreau, struck by a French shot, and dying amid the enemies of France! “14
Vandamme pursued the retreating Austrians, was not followed and supported by Napoleon (who had been stricken with violent gastric pains), fell into a trap, and surrendered his 7,000 men to one of Schwarzenberg’s divisions (August 28). Soon afterward Ney lost 15,000 men in an engagement at Dennewitz (September 6). Napoleon mourned to see his victory at Dresden so annulled. He sent orders to the Senate to call up 120,000 conscripts from the class of 1814, and 160,000 from the class of 1815. These were youngsters who would need many months of training. At the same time 60,000 Russian troops, hardened by a campaign in Poland, were added to Alexander’s army; and on October 8 the Bavarian Army, previously supporting Napoleon, joined his foes.
So strengthened, the Allies now aimed to capture Leipzig, and to decide the war in a battle where their united forces would prevail over any Napoleonic strategy. In October 160,000 men—led by Blücher, Bennigsen, Bernadotte, Schwarzenberg, Eugen of Württemberg, and other generals-converged upon the city. Napoleon brought up his armies from north, center, and south, 115,000 men in all, under Marmont, Alexandre Macdonald, Augereau, Bertrand, Kellermann, Victor, Murat, Ney, and Prince Józef Poniatowski. Rarely had so much military genius, or so many nationalities, met on any one field; this, as the Germans called it, was the Völkerschlacht —the Battle (literally the Slaughter) of the Nations.
Napoleon took his stand in an exposed position in the rear of his forces, and directed their movements during the three days of the action (October 16–19, 1813). According to his own account,15 the French had the upper hand until October 18, when the Saxon troops went over to the Allies and then turned their guns upon the French, who, surprised and confused, began to give ground. On the next day the contingents from the Confederation of the Rhine defected to the Allies. Seeing that his men, apparently running out of ammunition,16 were suffering enormous losses, Napoleon ordered them to retreat across the Rivers Pleisse and Elster. Most of them succeeded in this, but an excited engineer blew up a bridge over the Elster while some of the French were crossing; many were drowned, including the gallant Poniatowski, who had fought so well that Napoleon had made him a marshal on the battlefield. Only 60,000 of the 115,000 who had fought for Napoleon at Leipzig reached the River Saale; thousands fell prisoners, and 120,000 French troops left in German fortresses were lost to France. Those of the retreating French who reached the Saale received food and clothing and supplies. Then they made their way westward to the Main at Hanau; there they fought and defeated a force of Austrians and Bavarians; and on November 2, after two weeks of flight, they reached the Rhine at Mainz, and crossed the river into France.